There's no denying that free agency has changed the landscape of professional football. More than a third of the Super Bowl LV champion Buccaneers' starting lineup was either not drafted by Tampa Bay or started their careers elsewhere. Given the impact of free agency, it's safe to say that the 1979 Steelers will be the first and last Super Bowl champion whose entire roster was comprised of homegrown talent.
That being said, there are still plenty of stars on their original teams. The AFC North, for example, has several marquee players still playing on their rookie contracts. The Steelers, Ravens and Browns each leaned on several homegrown players to help them clinch one of the AFC's seven playoff spots in 2020. With that in mind, let's take a look at one "homegrown player" on each AFC North team's roster who is expected to make a significant impact on their respective team in 2021.
Baltimore Ravens: QB Lamar Jackson
For now, Jackson is still under his 2018 rookie contract. Jackson (who had his fifth-year option picked up earlier this offseason) has quickly emerged as one of the NFL's best players. The 2019 league MVP, Jackson recently finished 29th in CBS Sports senior NFL writer Pete Prisco's annual top-100 players list. A year after he led the league in touchdown passes (while also setting an NFL record for single-season rushing yards by a quarterback), Jackson became the first quarterback to run for over 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. Furthermore, Jackson won his first playoff game, a 20-13 victory over the Titans (the same team that upset Baltimore in the 2019 playoffs) in the AFC wild-card round.
The Ravens have put Jackson in position to have even more success in 2021. This offseason, the Ravens signed former first-round pick Sammy Watkins, whose big-play ability helped the Chiefs win a Super Bowl. They also spent a first-round pick on Rashod Bateman, who averaged 16.3 yards per catch during his time at Minnesota. Jackson still has big-play threat Marquise Brown along with reliable tight end Mark Andrews. Baltimore -- following the trade of Orlando Brown Jr. -- strengthened its line by signing former Giants guard Kevin Zeitler and former Steelers Pro Bowler Alejandro Villanueva. The Ravens also spent a third-round pick on Ben Cleveland, one of the top-ranked centers in the draft.
Had he not suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 11, Burrow would have challenged Justin Herbert for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year last season. Prior to his season ending prematurely, last year's No. 1 overall pick led the NFL in passing. During a six-week span, Burrow threw for over 300 yards five times that included a season-high 406 yards against the Browns in Week 7. Making Burrow's success even more impressive was the fact that he was often running for his life while playing behind a below-average offensive line.
The Bengals have two finite goals for 2021: being a more competitive team where it counts (on the scoreboard) and keeping Burrow healthy for the duration of the season. While they will likely be looking up once again in the AFC North standings in 2021, the Bengals are in good position to achieve both goals. They added to an already strong receiving corps with the selection of Ja'Marr Chase, who caught 20 passes from Burrow during their final season together at LSU. More importantly, Cincinnati strengthened their offensive line, adding veteran Riley Reiff in free agency and Jackson Carman and D'Ante Smith via the draft.
Cleveland Browns: RB Nick Chubb
The fourth running back selected in the 2018 draft, Chubb has blossomed into one of the NFL's best running backs. In fact, the former Georgia Bulldog recently came in at No. 6 on CBS Sports NFL writer Patrik Walker's list of the league's top 10 running backs. If he's healthy, don't be surprised to see Chubb break into the top five of Walker's list this time next year.
Despite missing four games to injury and sharing some of the workload with Kareem Hunt, Chubb still earned his second consecutive Pro Bowl selection last season after rushing for 1,067 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging 5.6 yards per carry. In Cleveland's wild-card playoff win over the Steelers, Chubb amassed 145 all-purpose yards that included a game-clinching, 40-yard touchdown off of a screen pass from Baker Mayfield.
While the Browns' immense depth at the skill positions may limit his workload, Chubb is nevertheless the straw the stirs the drink as it pertains to Cleveland's offense. And while the return of Odell Beckham Jr. may deter some fantasy players from drafting him, Beckham's presence may further open things up for Chubb, who averaged nearly 107 all-purpose yards per game over the past two seasons.
Pittsburgh Steelers: OLB T.J. Watt
How good is the Steelers' 2017 first-round pick? Watt (who currently is slated to play the 2021 season under his fifth-year option) came in at No. 6 on Prisco's top 100 list. Watt was the second-rated defensive player on the list, behind reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. Watt, who finished second to Donald in the DPOY voting last year, is currently tied with Nick Bosa for the second-best odds to win the award in 2021.
The former Wisconsin Badger has carried on the Steelers' long-standing lineage of strong linebacker play. During his first four seasons, Watt tallied 49.5 sacks that included a league-high 15 sacks in 2020. He also led the NFL in tackles for loss last season despite sitting out the Steelers' final game of the regular season. Watt led the NFL in forced fumbles in 2019, his first of two consecutive All-Pro seasons. Watt will look to continue to produce at a high level despite the offseason departure of Bud Dupree. Watt has high hopes for Dupree's replacement, Alex Highsmith, who played well as a rookie last season following Dupree's season-ending injury.